Monthly Archives: June 2013

Chemist v Chemical Engineer joke

What’s the difference between a chemist and a chemical engineer?


How much they make.


I made up this joke up as there were no other chemical engineer jokes I knew. It’s an OK double entente that’s pretty true — both in terms of product produced and the amount of salary (there’s probably a cause-and-effect relation here). Typical of these puns, this joke ignores the internal differences in methodologies and background (see my post, How is Chemical engineering?). If you like, here’s another engineering joke,  a chemistry joke, and a dwarf joke.

R.E. Buxbaum –  June 28, 2013.

What’s Holding Gilroy on the Roof

We recently put a sculpture on our roof: Gilroy, or “Mr Hydrogen.” It’s a larger version of a creepy face sculpture I’d made some moths ago. Like it, and my saber-toothed tiger, the eyes follow you. A worry about this version: is there enough keeping it from blowing down on the cars? Anyone who puts up a large structure must address this worry, but I’m a professional engineer with a PhD from Princeton, so my answer is a bit different from most.

Gilroy (Mr Hydrogen) sculpture on roof of REB Research & Consulting. The eyes follow you.

Gilroy (Mr Hydrogen) sculpture on roof of REB Research & Consulting. The eyes follow you. Aim is that it should withstand 50 mph winds.

The main force on most any structure is the wind (the pyramids are classic exceptions). Wind force is generally proportional to the exposed area and to the wind-speed squared: something called form-drag or quadratic drag. Since force is related to wind-speed, I start with some good statistics for wind speed, shown in the figure below for Detroit where we are.

The highest Detroit wind speeds are typically only 16 mph, but every few years the winds are seen to reach 23 mph. These are low relative to many locations: Detroit has does not get hurricanes and rarely gets tornadoes. Despite this, I’ve decided to brace the sculpture to withstand winds of 50 mph, or 22.3 m/s. On the unlikely chance there is a tornado, I figure there would be so much other flotsam that I would not have to answer about losing my head. (For why Detroit does not get hurricanes or tornadoes, see here. If you want to know why tornadoes lift things, see here).

The maximum area Gilroy presents is 1.5 m2. The wind force is calculated by multiplying this area by the kinetic energy loss per second 1/2ρv2, times a form factor.  F= (Area)*ƒ* 1/2ρv2, where ρ is the density of air, 1.29Kg/m3, and v is velocity, 22.3 m/s. The form factor, ƒ, is about 1.25 for this shape: ƒ is found to be 1.15 for a flat plane, and 1.1 to 1.3 a rough sphere or ski-jumper. F = 1.5*1.25* (1/2 *1.29*22.32) = 603 Nt = 134 lb.; pressure is this divided by area. Since the weight is only about 40 lbs, I find I have to tie down the sculpture. I’ve done that with a 150 lb rope, tying it to a steel vent pipe.

Wind speed for Detroit month by month. Used to calculate the force. From

Wind speed for Detroit month by month. Used to calculate the force. From

It is possible that there’s a viscous lift force too, but it is likely to be small given the blunt shape and the flow Reynolds number: 3190. There is also the worry that Gilroy might fall apart from vibration. Gilroy is made of 3/4″ plywood, treated for outdoor use and then painted, but the plywood is held together with 25 steel screws 4″ long x 1/4″ OD. Screws like this will easily hold 134 lbs of steady wind force, but a vibrating wind will cause fatigue in the metal (bend a wire often enough and it falls apart). I figure I can leave Gilroy up for a year or so without worry, but will then go up to replace the screws and check if I have to bring him/ it down.

In the meantime, I’ll want to add a sign under the sculpture: “REB Research, home of Mr Hydrogen” I want to keep things surreal, but want to be safe and make sales.

by Robert E. Buxbaum, June 21, 2013

Another Quantum Joke, and Schrödinger’s waves derived

Quantum mechanics joke. from xkcd.

Quantum mechanics joke. from xkcd.

Is funny because … it’s is a double entente on the words grain (as in grainy) and waves, as in Schrödinger waves or “amber waves of grain” in the song America (Oh Beautiful). In Schrödinger’s view of the quantum world everything seems to exist or move as a wave until you observe it, and then it always becomes a particle. The math to solve for the energy of things is simple, and thus the equation is useful, but it’s hard to understand why,  e.g. when you solve for the behavior of a particle (atom) in a double slit experiment you have to imagine that the particle behaves as an insubstantial wave traveling though both slits until it’s observed. And only then behaves as a completely solid particle.

Math equations can always be rewritten, though, and science works in the language of math. The different forms appear to have different meaning but they don’t since they have the same practical predictions. Because of this freedom of meaning (and some other things) science is the opposite of religion. Other mathematical formalisms for quantum mechanics may be more comforting, or less, but most avoid the wave-particle duality.

The first formalism was Heisenberg’s uncertainty. At the end of this post, I show that it is identical mathematically to Schrödinger’s wave view. Heisenberg’s version showed up in two quantum jokes that I explained (beat into the ground), one about a lightbulb  and one about Heisenberg in a car (also explains why water is wet or why hydrogen diffuses through metals so quickly).

Yet another quantum formalism involves Feynman’s little diagrams. One assumes that matter follows every possible path (the multiple universe view) and that time should go backwards. As a result, we expect that antimatter apples should fall up. Experiments are underway at CERN to test if they do fall up, and by next year we should finally know if they do. Even if anti-apples don’t fall up, that won’t mean this formalism is wrong, BTW: all identical math forms are identical, and we don’t understand gravity well in any of them.

Yet another identical formalism (my favorite) involves imagining that matter has a real and an imaginary part. In this formalism, the components move independently by diffusion, and as a result look like waves: exp (-it) = cost t + i sin t. You can’t observe the two parts independently though, only the following product of the real and imaginary part: (the real + imaginary part) x (the real – imaginary part). Slightly different math, same results, different ways of thinking of things.

Because of quantum mechanics, hydrogen diffuses very quickly in metals: in some metals quicker than most anything in water. This is the basis of REB Research metal membrane hydrogen purifiers and also causes hydrogen embrittlement (explained, perhaps in some later post). All other elements go through metals much slower than hydrogen allowing us to make hydrogen purifiers that are effectively 100% selective. Our membranes also separate different hydrogen isotopes from each other by quantum effects (big things tunnel slower). Among the uses for our hydrogen filters is for gas chromatography, dynamo cooling, and to reduce the likelihood of nuclear accidents.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 18, 2013.

To see Schrödinger’s wave equation derived from Heisenberg for non-changing (time independent) items, go here and note that, for a standing wave there is a vibration in time, though no net change. Start with a version of Heisenberg uncertainty: h =  λp where the uncertainty in length = wavelength = λ and the uncertainty in momentum = momentum = p. The kinetic energy, KE = 1/2 p2/m, and KE+U(x) =E where E is the total energy of the particle or atom, and U(x) is the potential energy, some function of position only. Thus, p = √2m(E-PE). Assume that the particle can be described by a standing wave with a physical description, ψ, and an imaginary vibration you can’t ever see, exp(-iωt). And assume this time and space are completely separable — an OK assumption if you ignore gravity and if your potential fields move slowly relative to the speed of light. Now read the section, follow the derivation, and go through the worked problems. Most useful applications of QM can be derived using this time-independent version of Schrödinger’s wave equation.

Paint your factory roof white

Standing on the flat roof of my lab / factory building, I notice that virtually all of my neighbors’ roofs are black, covered by tar or bitumen. My roof was black too until three weeks ago; the roof was too hot to touch when I’d gone up to patch a leak. That’s not quite egg-frying hot, but I came to believe my repair would last longer if the roof stayed cooler. So, after sealing the leak with tar and bitumen, we added an aluminized over-layer from Ace hardware. The roof is cooler now than before, and I notice a major drop in air conditioner load and use.

My analysis of our roof coating follows; it’s for Detroit, but you can modify it for your location. Sunlight hits the earth carrying 1300 W/m2. Some 300W/m2 scatters as blue light (for why so much scatters, and why the sky is blue, see here). The rest, 1000 W/m2 or 308 Btu/ft2hr, comes through or reflects off clouds on a cloudy day and hits buildings at an angle determined by latitude, time of day, and season of the year.

Detroit is at 42° North latitude so my roof shows an angle of 42° to the sun at noon in mid spring. In summer, the angle is 20°, and in winter about 63°. The sun sinks lower on the horizon through the day, e.g. at two hours before or after noon in mid spring the angle is 51°. On a clear day, with a perfectly black roof, the heating is 308 Btu/ft2hr times the cosine of the angle.

To calculate our average roof heating, I integrated this heat over the full day’s angles using Euler’s method, and included the scatter from clouds plus an absorption factor for the blackness of the roof. The figure below shows the cloud cover for Detroit.

Average cloud cover for Detroit, month by month.

Average cloud cover for Detroit, month by month; the black line is the median cloud cover. On January 1, it is strongly overcast 60% of the time, and hardly ever clear; the median is about 98%. From

Based on this and an assumed light absorption factor of σ = .9 for tar and σ = .2 after aluminum. I calculate an average of 105 Btu/ft2hr heating during the summer for the original black roof, and 23 Btu/ft2hr after aluminizing. Our roof is still warm, but it’s no longer hot. While most of the absorbed heat leaves the roof by black body radiation or convection, enough enters my lab through 6″ of insulation to cause me to use a lot of air conditioning. I calculate the heat entering this way from the roof temperature. In the summer, an aluminum coat is a clear winner.

Detroit High and Low Temperatures Over the ear

High and Low Temperatures For Detroit, Month by Month. From

Detroit has a cold winter too, and these are months where I’d benefit from solar heat. I find it’s so cloudy in winter that, even with a black roof, I got less than 5 Btu/ft2hr. Aluminizing reduced this heat to 1.2 Btu/ft2hr, but it also reduces the black-body radiation leaving at night. I should find that I use less heat in winter, but perhaps more in late spring and early fall. I won’t know the details till next year, but that’s the calculation.

The REB Research laboratory is located at 12851 Capital St., Oak Park, MI 48237. We specialize in hydrogen separations and membrane reactors. By Dr. Robert Buxbaum, June 16, 2013

Surrealism Jokes

What is it that is red and white, polka-dotted, filled with moisture, and hangs from trees in the winter?




Is funny because …… it’s more true than truth. Whatever claims to be unity must include the red and white, polka-dotted, moist items that hang from trees. Otherwise it wouldn’t be unity. Surrealism jokes should not be confused with Zen Jokes. Eg this. and that.  As a practical matter, you can tell surrealists from Buddhists because surrealists are drunks and have hair. And you know why Dali wore a mustache?


To pass unobserved

Dali's mustache without dali; notice how the mustache obscures the man.

Dali’s mustache without Dali, from Dali’s Mustache, the only book (to my knowledge) about a part of an artist. There are many books about Picasso, for example, but none about his left foot.

See how it’s true. The mustache takes the place of the man, standing in for him, or here the lack of him. Surrealism sees the absurd dream realism that is beyond the surd. “If you act the genius you will be one.” See? It even speaks for him, when needed.

Dali and his mustache agree, they love art for art's sake.

Dali and his mustache agree, they love art for art’s sake.

So how many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  The fish.

by R. E. Buxbaum, June 14, 2013

Hormesis, Sunshine and Radioactivity

It is often the case that something is good for you in small amounts, but bad in large amounts. As expressed by Paracelsus, an early 16th century doctor, “There is no difference between a poison and a cure: everything depends on dose.”

Aereolis Bombastus von Hoenheim (Paracelcus)

Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenheim (Dr. Paracelsus).

Some obvious examples involve foods: an apple a day may keep the doctor away. Fifteen will cause deep physical problems. Alcohol, something bad in high doses, and once banned in the US, tends to promote longevity and health when consumed in moderation, 1/2-2 glasses per day. This is called “hormesis”, where the dose vs benefit curve looks like an upside down U. While it may not apply to all foods, poisons, and insults, a view called “mitridatism,” it has been shown to apply to exercise, chocolate, coffee and (most recently) sunlight.

Up until recently, the advice was to avoid direct sun because of the risk of cancer. More recent studies show that the benefits of small amounts of sunlight outweigh the risks. Health is improved by lowering blood pressure and exciting the immune system, perhaps through release of nitric oxide. At low doses, these benefits far outweigh the small chance of skin cancer. Here’s a New York Times article reviewing the health benefits of 2-6 cups of coffee per day.

A hotly debated issue is whether radiation too has a hormetic dose range. In a previous post, I noted that thyroid cancer rates down-wind of the Chernobyl disaster are lower than in the US as a whole. I thought this was a curious statistical fluke, but apparently it is not. According to a review by The Harvard Medical School, apparent health improvements have been seen among the cleanup workers at Chernobyl, and among those exposed to low levels of radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The health   improvements relative to the general population could be a fluke, but after a while several flukes become a pattern.

Among the comments on my post, came this link to this scholarly summary article of several studies showing that long-term exposure to nuclear radiation below 1 Sv appears to be beneficial. One study involved an incident where a highly radioactive, Co-60 source was accidentally melted into a batch of steel that was subsequently used in the construction of apartments in Taiwan. The mistake was not discovered for over a decade, and by then the tenants had received between 0.4 and 6 Sv (far more than US law would allow). On average, they were healthier than the norm and had significantly lower cancer death rates. Supporting this is the finding, in the US, that lung cancer death rates are 35% lower in the states with the highest average radon radiation levels (Colorado, North Dakota, and Iowa) than in those with the lowest levels (Delaware, Louisiana, and California). Note: SHORT-TERM exposure to 1 Sv is NOT good for you; it will give radiation sickness, and short-term exposure to 4.5 Sv is the 50% death level

Most people in the irradiated Taiwan apartments got .2 Sv/year or less, but the same health benefit has also been shown for people living on radioactive sites in China and India where the levels were as high as .6 Sv/year (normal US background radiation is .0024 Sv/year). Similarly, virtually all animal and plant studies show that radiation appears to improve life expectancy and fecundity (fruit production, number of offspring) at dose rates as high as 1 Sv/month.

I’m not recommending 1 Sv/month for healthy people, it’s a cancer treatment dose, and will make healthy people feel sick. A possible reason it works for plants and some animals is that the radiation may kill proto- cancer, harmful bacteria, and viruses — organisms that lack the repair mechanisms of larger, more sophisticated organisms. Alternately, it could kill non-productive, benign growths allowing the more-healthy growths to do their thing. This explanation is similar to that for the benefits farmers produce by pinching off unwanted leaves and pruning unwanted branches.

It is not conclusive radiation improved human health in any of these studies. It is possible that exposed people happened to choose healthier life-styles than non-exposed people, choosing to smoke less, do more exercise, or eat fewer cheeseburgers (that, more-or-less, was my original explanation). Or it may be purely psychological: people who think they have only a few years to live, live healthier. Then again, it’s possible that radiation is healthy in small doses and maybe cheeseburgers and cigarettes are too?! Here’s a scene from “Sleeper” a 1973, science fiction, comedy movie where Woody Allan, asleep for 200 years, finds that deep fat, chocolate, and cigarettes are the best things for your health. You may not want a cigarette or a radium necklace quite yet, but based on these studies, I’m inclined to reconsider the risk/ benefit balance in favor of nuclear power.

Note: my company, REB Research makes (among other things), hydrogen getters (used to reduce the risks of radioactive waste transportation) and hydrogen separation filters (useful for cleanup of tritium from radioactive water, for fusion reactors, and to reduce the likelihood of explosions in nuclear facilities.

by Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum June 9, 2013

What’s the quality of your home insulation

By Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, June 3, 2013

It’s common to have companies call during dinner offering to blow extra insulation into the walls and attic of your home. Those who’ve added this insulation find a small decrease in their heating and cooling bills, but generally wonder if they got their money’s worth, or perhaps if they need yet-more insulation to get the full benefit. Here’s a simple approach to comparing your home heat bill to the ideal your home can reasonably reach.

The rate of heat transfer through a wall, Qw, is proportional to the temperature difference, ∆T, to the area, A, and to the average thermal conductivity of the wall, k; it is inversely proportional to the wall thickness, ∂;

Qw = ∆T A k /∂.

For home insulation, we re-write this as Qw = ∆T A/Rw where Rw is the thermal resistance of the wall, measured (in the US) as °F/BTU/hr-ft2. Rw = ∂/k.

Lets assume that your home’s outer wall thickness is nominally 6″ thick (0.5 foot). With the best available insulation, perfectly applied, the heat loss will be somewhat higher than if the space was filled with still air, k=.024 BTU/fthr°F, a result based on molecular dynamics. For a 6″ wall, the R value, will always be less than .5/.024 = 20.8 °F/BTU/hr-ft2.. It will be much less if there are holes or air infiltration, but for practical construction with joists and sills, an Rw value of 15 or 16 is probably about as good as you’ll get with 6″ walls.

To show you how to evaluate your home, I’ll now calculate the R value of my walls based on the size of my ranch-style home (in Michigan) and our heat bills. I’ll first do this in a simplified calculation, ignoring windows, and will then repeat the calculation including the windows. Windows are found to be very important. I strongly suggest window curtains to save heat and air conditioning,

The outer wall of my home is 190 feet long, and extends about 11 feet above ground to the roof. Multiplying these dimensions gives an outer wall area of 2090 ft2. I could now add the roof area, 1750 ft2 (it’s the same as the area of the house), but since the roof is more heavily insulated than the walls, I’ll estimate that it behaves like 1410 ft2 of normal wall. I calculate there are 3500 ftof effective above-ground area for heat loss. This is the area that companies keep offering to insulate.

Between December 2011 and February 2012, our home was about 72°F inside, and the outside temperature was about 28°F. Thus, the average temperature difference between the inside and outside was about 45°F; I estimate the rate of heat loss from the above-ground part of my house, Qu = 3500 * 45/R = 157,500/Rw.

Our house has a basement too, something that no one has yet offered to insulate. While the below-ground temperature gradient is smaller, it’s less-well insulated. Our basement walls are cinderblock covered with 2″ of styrofoam plus wall-board. Our basement floor is even less well insulated: it’s just cement poured on pea-gravel. I estimate the below-ground R value is no more than 1/2 of whatever the above ground value is; thus, for calculating QB, I’ll assume a resistance of Rw/2.

The below-ground area equals the square footage of our house, 1750 ft2 but the walls extend down only about 5 feet below ground. The basement walls are thus 950 ft2 in area (5 x 190 = 950). Adding the 1750 ft2 floor area, we find a total below-ground area of 2700 ft2.

The temperature difference between the basement and the wet dirt is only about 25°F in the winter. Assuming the thermal resistance is Rw/2, I estimate the rate of heat loss from the basement, QB = 2700*25*(2/Rw) = 135,000/Rw. It appears that nearly as much heat leaves through the basement as above ground!

Between December and February 2012, our home used an average of 597 cubic feet of gas per day or 25497 BTU/hour (heat value = 1025 BTU/ ft3). QU+ Q= 292,500/Rw. Ignoring windows, I estimate Rw of my home = 292,500/25497 = 11.47.

We now add the windows. Our house has 230 ft2 of windows, most covered by curtains and/or plastic. Because of the curtains and plastic, they would have an R value of 3 except that black-body radiation tends to be very significant. I estimate our windows have an R value of 1.5; the heat loss through the windows is thus QW= 230*45/1.5 = 6900 BTU/hr, about 27% of the total. The R value for our walls is now re-estimated to be 292,500/(25497-6900) = 15.7; this is about as good as I can expect given the fixed thickness of our walls and the fact that I can not easily get an insulation conductivity lower than still air. I thus find that there will be little or no benefit to adding more above-ground wall insulation to my house.

To save heat energy, I might want to coat our windows in partially reflective plastic or draw the curtains to follow the sun. Also, since nearly half the heat left from the basement, I may want to lay a thicker carpet, or lay a reflective under-layer (a space blanket) beneath the carpet.

To improve on the above estimate, I could consider our furnace efficiency; it is perhaps only 85-90% efficient, with still-warm air leaving up the chimney. There is also some heat lost through the door being opened, and through hot water being poured down the drain. As a first guess, these heat losses are balanced by the heat added by electric usage, by the body-heat of people in the house, and by solar radiation that entered through the windows (not much for Michigan in winter). I still see no reason to add more above-ground insulation. Now that I’ve analyzed my home, it’s time for you to analyze yours.